A picture of the Champlain Bridge mid-construction
Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gov. John Weeks shake hands at the bridge opening
The Champlain Bridge's cracked piers today
Addison, Vermont - November 11, 2009
Eighty years have passed since the Champlain Bridge opened with the promise of a delay-free year-round route between New York and Vermont.
"They thought it was a wonderful development for both sides of the lake and actually beyond," says Erwin Clark, co-president of the Addison Town Historical Society.
Clark's farming family has called Addison home since the 1700s and the bridge was a far cry from the usual architecture of the region.
"If a farmer built a 100 cow barn that was the ultimate," he recalled. "It was quite a feat to build that bridge."
The journey from idea to action happened in a short time. In 1923 both states formed exploratory commissions to learn more about the bridge project. Four years later, construction began.
"They built these temporary (wooden) structures to support the bridge until they could get to the next pier," Clark says, pointing to a book full of old photos showing the span in various stages of construction.
Those same piers that are now blamed for the death of the bridge itself hold a grisly reminder of the project's single casualty.
"I was told of a fellow that fell in the concrete when they were building the pier and they weren't able to rescue him," Clark says. "He's still in the pier."
But the span, built to promote industry in the region, was about to start its life.
"It was the biggest celebration I believe Vermont has ever seen," Clark says of the day the Champlain Bridge officially opened.
On Aug. 26, 1929, tens of thousands of residents from both sides of the lake came together in a parade of boats and floats representing local towns. At the center of the bridge, Vermont Gov. John Weeks and New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt shook hands, uniting their states.
Roosevelt, true to form, talked politics.
"He said, 'Now, does this mean you Vermonters will come over to New York and make Republicans out of us or will we go over to Vermont and make Democrats out of you?'" Clark recalls.
Inter-state travel began immediately, but at a cost. The toll on the bridge was $1 each way, which was the same amount a laborer made for a day's work. Clark remembers people using the bridge as a conduit for strictly important business.
"We'd drive up there, my dad and I, we had a large truck, we'd get a truckload of sawdust," he recalls. "With the price of sawdust being free that made up for (the toll)."
By the 1950s, people were using the span to make money and make friends.
"The legal drinking age in Vermont was 21, in New York it was 18," Clark says.
A stone's throw from the bridge a New York bar served as the perfect clubhouse for young adults on both sides of the lake.
"I guess you could call it kind of a honky tonk, they had dancing there," Clark says.
When the tolls were removed in 1987, Clark says more people were crossing the bridge on a daily basis.
"Industry in Addison County hired a lot of people from New York," he says
The bridge became a way of life for thousands, with about 3,500 cars crossed the span every day.
Now its abrupt closure has become the end of an era. The spot where, 80 years ago, two governors joined hands in celebration of the new bridge joining their states now stands empty, since the highway across the divide of Lake Champlain has become the divide itself.
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